A LETTER FROM PARIS: French Lessons (in English) on How to Become Parisian
By Mervyn Rothstein
How to Become Parisian in One Hour?, a rare English-language theatrical event in the City of Light, was cooked up by a Frenchman who was once a restaurant manager at a Florida resort. His dream of writing and starring in a show has become a Paris reality.
It's a long way from managing a restaurant in Palm Beach, Florida, to having a successful one-man comedy show — in English — in Paris, but Olivier Giraud has made that journey.
Giraud's show, How to Become Parisian in One Hour?, has been playing in Paris for two and a half years and, the comedian says, has been seen by about 80,000 people — many of them Parisians. It plays at an Off-Broadway-like 235-seat venue, the Théâtre de la Main d'Or, down a cobblestone passageway in the 11th arrondissement, near the Bastille. He performs five times a week, and the success has been such that negotiations are under way to move the show early next year to a larger, 600-seat theatre.
"I lived in America for five years," Giraud, who is 33 and looks quintessentially French, says before the show, sitting in a café just around the corner from the theatre. He speaks English with a heavy, but completely understandable, French accent. "I managed the restaurant L'Escalier at the Breakers resort. I had many American guests, and some Parisians, and I would laugh about all the differences between the French and the Americans, and I thought that when the Americans went to Paris it must be a nightmare. From the time I was very young I had dreamed about being a comic, so I decided to write a show about how Americans have to act in Paris to have a good vacation — how to act like a Parisian."
He knew immediately that the way to convey those lessons would be through humor. "It's the best way to attract more people — get them to laugh a lot. Even the French like to laugh about themselves. So I thought I would try it." And in order to get American tourists to come for the "lessons," he says, "I thought I would try it in English."
Managing a restaurant in Florida seems an unusual way to prepare for doing comedy in Paris. But when he was a teenager and told his parents about his plans to be a comedian, "they became very scared. They said it's not possible. They said that everyone dreams of being an actor or a comedian. So I said, 'O.K., you're right.' But it was in my mind all the time, every day. 'I want to do it,' I thought, 'I want to do it.'"
To satisfy his parents, he went to culinary school in Bordeaux at age 16 and then got a degree in Paris in hotel management, winding up eventually in Palm Beach. But after several years, "I became sick and tired of my job at the Breakers. It was too hard, too straight — white gloves — too much. And I was thinking all the time about comedy. Finally I said, 'Stop everything. I want to go back to France, and I'm going to try.'"
And he is planning for it to run until at least the end of 2012.
His show, logically, runs about an hour. He's alone onstage with just one black leather chair as a prop. One recent Saturday night, the house's red-cushioned seats were just about full. Most of the audience members were young and hip, though there was a sprinkling of gray throughout the theatre. Many arrive at their seats with wine bottles and glasses obtained at the theatre's bar (after all, this is Paris).
They are also multicultural. A survey Giraud takes every night found that on this evening, audience members came from Scotland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, the Philippines, Argentina, Colombia, Singapore, South Korea, South Africa, Australia, New York, Chicago — and, in large numbers, Paris.
The show begins with a fanfare, and Giraud then leads the audience in the Marseillaise, to get them prepared for a fair amount of audience participation. Giraud's lessons come in eight humorous categories: restaurants — the war between the guests and the waiter; shopping — how to deal with department store clerks who couldn't seem to care less if they made a sale; nightclubs; taxis; the Metro, or how not to give a pregnant woman your seat; communicating with Parisians; speaking like a Parisian; and sex, including the fact that one should never praise a Frenchwoman for how she looks that day. (What? she is likely to say. You mean I looked terrible yesterday?) There is a lot of laughter, and everyone appears to be having a good time — and afterward, telling friends.
"The show has great word of mouth," Giraud says at the café. "People come once and come again, sometimes ten times." Indeed, the show, at least at this writing, is No. 1 on the TripAdvisor.com list of recommended Paris-area nightlife, and No. 3 overall for attractions in Paris.
Giraud says that to keep people coming back, he revises the show frequently, and that he will be adding more categories at the new theatre — including how to become a Parisian on vacation and how to find an apartment in Paris.
After each show, he says, he stands outside the theatre to shake hands and say goodnight as audience members file by.
"Most comedians wait years to have a full theatre," he says. "For me, it happened after six or seven months. I wake up every morning happy. And I go to bed happy."
How to Become Parisian in One Hour? has also been seen in Belgium and Spain, with other European bookings planned. Giraud hopes to do the show in New York City in 2012-13. For more information, visit OlivierGiraud.com.
Merv Rothstein's work is often seen in the pages of Playbill magazine and Playbill.com. He pens the monthly A Life in the Theatre feature.
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